Comprehensive in scope and ingeniously structured, the workshop model for reading and writing instruction, combined with a complementary curriculum, gives teachers an exciting and effective instruction blueprint that can be adapted to any school, classroom or individual student. The model and curriculum are presented together by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) at Columbia University in New York City thanks to program founder/director and children’s literature professor Lucy Caulkins, whose intensive one-week summer trainings are described as nothing less than transformative.
The workshop model is based on teaching students across all grade levels about specific reading and writing skills and strategies in a way that gives them enough time and space to practice and explore what they have just learned. “That’s why it is called a workshop — because there is some amount of instruction, but most of the time is given to students to implement those skills and strategies in meaningful and powerful ways,” explains third-grade teacher Emily Banks, who is also a long-time devotee of TCRWP. “What I love about this reading and writing program is, it tells students from day one, ‘You are all readers and you are all writers and we are going to help you unlock these strategies so you can be the best reader and writer that you can be.”
The workshop model follows a very specific sequence. First, the teacher presents an 8- to 10-minute mini-lesson to introduce a new reading or writing skill or strategy, together the class explores how it can be used. “Every lesson starts with a ‘connection’ to information that the student has already learned,” notes Ms. Banks. Next, students go off to do their reading or writing while the teacher circulates to confer or offer coaching as needed. For writing lessons, students may have the opportunity to read their work aloud and provide each other with feedback. Several grades at Burke's have implemented that idea through "publishing parties," which also serve as an opportunity to celebrate a finished product. (Click here
to see photos from the fourth grade's recent publishing party!)
First-grade teacher Seneca Gupta began using the workshop model and TCRWP curriculum just this year and is impressed with how her young students are picking up on fairly sophisticated concepts. “The first unit in the program is ‘Small Moments,’ so we talk about how our lives are full of moments to tell, and how they can tease out these moments to create a story,” Ms. Gupta says. “So they might at first say, ‘I don’t have anything to write about,’ but then they start thinking, ‘Well, gee, on the way to school I tripped and my backpack spilled’ and they see how all of these little things can be full of rich details and interesting stories to tell.”
The program is designed so that the skills and strategies that have been taught build on each other and circle back so that nothing is forgotten. For instance, kindergarten students who learn to picture their first, too-broad writing idea as a watermelon, and then to narrow it down by breaking it down into “seeds,” can apply that device for life. “Just because a child is in kindergarten, first, or second grade doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be learning skills such as prediction and inference and how to write a really juicy sentence,” Ms. Banks points out. “What I love about this program is that it really empowers students.” Students in all grade levels use the Writer's and Reader's Workshop model no matter what they're working on, whether it's the simplest poetry or complex persuasive essays.
Building on Success
Currently, more than half of all Burke’s teachers have received TCRWP training during the summer thanks to Burke's robust professional-development funds, and even more are still slated to do so. “Once teachers go, it’s like drinking the Kool-Aid, and it isn’t hard to keep that flame burning,” says Lower School Director Alice Moore. “Also, teachers who have gone share with other teachers to keep the excitement going. The learning specialists know the program as well.”
The program’s tie-in to Burke’s ongoing commitment to its students’ social-emotional development could not be more solid. “This program is about giving students voice, independence, and agency in their reading and writing,” Ms. Moore says. “And students must feel comfortable and safe about taking risks so they can really read, explore ideas, write, and share.”
The most profound evidence, of course, rests with the students themselves, who are developing a passion for reading and writing, regardless of their grade levels, personal history, and other differences. “This program debunks this myth that there are ‘good readers’ and ‘bad readers,’” Ms. Banks says. “There’s so much differentiation built into all aspects of the program. So the student who is learning English as a second language or the student who has a learning difference is internalizing that message that she is a reader and a writer. End of story.”